High Court ruling denies some RCA lawsuit plaintiffs compensation

Former Radio Corp. of America workers and their supporters gather outside the Taiwan High Court on Friday.
Former Radio Corp. of America workers and their supporters gather outside the Taiwan High Court on Friday.

TAIPEI (CNA) — The Taiwan High Court has awarded NT$54.7 million (US$1.82 million) in compensation to a small fraction of plaintiffs in a high-profile class action lawsuit involving Radio Corp. of America (RCA).

The court ruled Friday that only 24 of 246 plaintiffs were entitled to compensation for the company’s toxic chemical pollution blamed for sickening or causing the deaths of thousands of RCA workers at its Taoyuan factory from 1970 to 1992.

In response to Friday’s verdict, the lawyers for the plaintiffs said in a statement that they will “definitely” file an appeal after expressing disappointment at the ruling.

They criticized the compensation as being “far below a reasonable amount” and were unhappy that only 24 of the plaintiffs received compensation.

The latest case stemmed from a class action lawsuit brought by 486 former RCA employees and relatives of deceased or injured workers against RCA, its parent and successor companies in 2004.

Following the first Taiwan High Court ruling in which they were all awarded compensation, the Supreme Court heard the case on appeal.

In August 2018, it ordered the defendants to pay about NT$500 million in compensation to 262 of the plaintiffs — either former workers who developed cancer or other illnesses or family members of deceased workers.

The Supreme Court, however, sent the cases of the other 224 plaintiffs back to the Taiwan High Court to reconsider its compensation awards, arguing that they only suffered emotional distress and had not developed diseases from exposure to the toxins.

Another 22 people, mostly relatives of deceased workers, joined those 224 plaintiffs in the latest trial.

In explaining why the high court decided to overturn its previous ruling for all but 24 of the plaintiffs, high court spokesperson Tao Ya-chin (陶亞琴) cited three main reasons for denying damages to the 222 others.

She said they either had failed to establish the legal right to serve as a claimant (generally referring to relatives acting on behalf of deceased workers), did not show direct links between the factory’s pollution and their disease, or displayed no obvious exterior signs of being sick.

Friday’s verdict can be appealed.

RCA operated three major plants in then Taoyuan County (now the municipality of Taoyuan), Chupei in Hsinchu County and Yilan County from 1970 to 1992, employing about 80,000 workers at its peak.

In 1986, RCA was taken over by American multinational conglomerate General Electric (GE), which sold the Taoyuan factory in 1988 to Thomson Consumer Electronics, the U.S. subsidiary of the French Technicolor SA, before it moved production of electronic products to China.

Three years after its takeover, Thomson found severe pollution at the Taoyuan factory and as a result shut it down the following year, but by then some of its 20,000 workers had been diagnosed with cancer.

In 1998, a group of workers who fell victim to the industrial pollution organized a self-help association to seek compensation through legal channels, triggering years of lawsuits involving nearly 2,000 plaintiffs.

During subsequent investigations, RCA was found liable for the illnesses, including cancer, contracted by its employees due to exposure to some 30 types of organic solvents, including the carcinogen trichloroethylene.

The company was also found to have been dumping toxic waste close to its factory, contaminating the soil and underground water.

In December 2019, the Taipei District Court ruled in favor of 1,115 claimants in a separate class action lawsuit against RCA and three of its affiliates — GE, Thomson Consumer Electronics (Bermuda), and Technicolor SA — awarding them a total of about NT$2.3 billion.

That ruling has been appealed by both sides to the Taiwan High Court.